Best of 2020 Q&A: Debra Thompson

Debra Thompson appears on our Best of 2020 list for the piece “My Black ancestors fled America for freedom. I left Canada to find a home. Now both countries must fight for a better world.” You can read it at The Globe and Mail.

GCL invited writers on the list to answer a questionnaire to give us further insight into their work. The following are Debra’s answers:

How did you start working on this story?

I was asked to do a public lecture as a fundraiser for the Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene, Oregon. The “Ideas on Tap” series is hosted at a local brewery and is designed to bring academic research to a broader audience.

I wasn’t ready to present my latest research, but I knew I was leaving my position at the University of Oregon and had a lot of complicated feelings about leaving the United States to return to Canada. So, I decided to talk about it to an audience of strangers. Much to my surprise, the brewery was completely packed. The audience was so interested and engaged and supportive that I thought maybe the piece could turn into something publishable.

How long did it take to write this piece?

Probably about a month to write the presentation and I then spent some time over the next several months tweaking it.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

I am a political scientist – by training, anyway – and so I don’t write about myself. Ever. Writing from or about personal experiences is not an approach that is viewed positively in my discipline. Writing for a general audience is also a very different style than what I’m used to.

In many academic settings, opaque writing is a kind of moral credentialing; complexity is frequently considered a proxy for intellectual worth. But you can’t reach a broad audience that way. At the same time, I write about race and racism and I will never simplify the terms of the debate. There is too much at stake. So, striking a balance between complexity and accessibility was certainly a challenge.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

I have two children under five, so I write when I can, as fast as I can, anywhere I can. Sometimes I try to get up early to write, but somehow, they know. And they wake up. And then we’re all just up early.

What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?

The schools and daycares in Oregon shut down in mid-March. They did not reopen. Any semblance of work-life balance I pretended to have pre-pandemic was eviscerated in an instant. It is impossible to work full-time and take care of children full-time.

Any time that I found to write had to be negotiated with my partner, who had his own full-time job and obligations, or was stolen while my children napped or were momentarily distracted. The pandemic has most tragically stolen lives from us, but it has also stolen time, and my sense is that we – all of us, but most especially women, racialized minorities, and low-income populations – will feel the psychological, emotional, and professional consequences for decades.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject (or in the case of a personal essay, yourself) during the process?

Huh. I guess it was surprising that anyone would be interested in hearing about my very personal and peculiar take on my experiences of racism in Canada and the United States. This is also my research, and so I think and write and live and breathe it all day, every day. So, the surprise was both wonder at the incredible reception to my story, and shock that so many people had never thought about the realities of racism in these countries.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

It’s hard to tell, actually. My sense is that the piece struck a chord with many people. I’ve presented different versions of this piece in various forums, and the audiences are always large and captivated. But it’s also an essay about race and racism in societies that are still defined, overtly and surreptitiously, by white supremacy. I get a lot of hate mail.

For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favourite writing tip to share?

If you get stuck on a sentence or idea, write around it and keep going. My drafts frequently have the phrase “[something something]”.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

I’m turning the essay into a book! More details on that should be announced soonish. And, of course, I have my day job as a political scientist at McGill University. In 2021 I’ll be finishing up a project on racial inequality in Canada with Dr. Keith Banting of Queen’s University, writing an article on Black Lives Matter and Black Political Thought for a special issue of the journal South Atlantic Quarterly and I think I have committed to write three book chapters for edited volumes. It’s going to be a busy year, but what a charmed life I have, to write for a living. 

Find Debra on Twitter: @debthompsonphd

This Q&A may have been edited for clarity and length.

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Best of 2020 Q&A: Jana G. Pruden

Jana G. Pruden appears on our Best of 2020 list for the piece “He said, they said: inside the trial of Matthew McKnight.” You can read it at The Globe and Mail.

GCL invited writers on the list to answer a questionnaire to give us further insight into their work. The following are Jana’s answers:

How did you start working on this story?

I had been keeping an eye on this case, and thought it might make an interesting longform story. I pitched it to my editor shortly before the trial began, in late September 2019.

How long did it take to write this piece?

The bulk of the time on this piece was spent in court. The trial was originally slated for 10 weeks, but ultimately went longer (63 days in total). I was in court every day, and I didn’t start writing the story until the trial was over. It took me 12 days to go through my material and get a draft down, and a lot of time after that to get it to its final version.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

There were a number of very challenging aspects to this piece, especially the sheer amount of information. By the trial’s end, I had nearly 4,000 pages of notes from court and many hours of outside interviews. With 13 separate allegations being heard in a single trial, the complexity of the case itself was also a challenge. I really wanted to give people a deeper look into the court’s handling of the case, but I also knew looking at the details of each charge and how they were defended would be impossible.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

Coming up in daily news with tight deadlines, I’m not too picky about my rituals. That’s why I think breaking news is such good training for all other kinds of writing. If you can file a full story from your car in a snowstorm or crouched in a hallway somewhere, every other creative comfort is gravy. When a story has to be written, I just have to get it done.

That said, coffee definitely helps.

What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?

The pandemic didn’t have a huge impact on this particular story, but in a general sense the pandemic has introduced some interesting challenges. These include making it harder to report and meet people in person, which can be such an important part of feature writing.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject (or in the case of a personal essay, yourself) during the process?

There were a lot of twists and turns, but not necessarily any big surprises in this piece.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

I was really moved by the reaction to the piece. Most importantly, I got a lot of very meaningful messages from people who felt their personal experiences were represented, whether or not they had any relation to this particular case. I was glad it connected with people in that way.

For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favourite writing tip to share?

Don’t compare your first draft with other people’s finished pieces.

What writing projects are you working on currently?

I don’t like to share projects in progress because I’m always afraid of getting scooped! But I have a couple of things in the works that I’m really excited about, so stay tuned.

Find Jana on Twitter: @jana_pruden

This Q&A may have been edited for clarity and length.

He said, they said: inside the trial of Matthew McKnight

“By the morning of the third day, Juliette was starting to worry. It was the middle of January, 2020, a viciously cold week in Edmonton. She’d been so sure the jury believed her, believed them. But after 26 hours of deliberation, she wasn’t as certain as she had been, and now the question hung on her like a stone: What was taking so long? The others were waiting, too.”

Jana G. Pruden – The Globe and Mail – July 2020

I donated my kidney to help a stranger. But what about the person I couldn’t help?

“Piecing together the reasons I chose to give someone I’ve never met a kidney has led me to examine my many privileges and failures – all the times I could have been generous, but wasn’t, all the times I gave, but could have given more. It has also forced me to reckon with a deep well of regret over the one life I wish I had saved but did not.”

Wency Leung – The Globe and Mail – June 2020

Hitchhiker, hero, celebrity, killer

“It was late in the morning on Feb. 1, 2013, when Caleb Lawrence McGillivary met Jesus Christ on a highway outside Bakersfield. McGillivary had been on the road a good while by then, having left his home in Alberta as a teenager to find his own way in the world. He’d gone back at times, back to his family, back to school or work, but that kind of routine never suited him for long, and by the early months of 2013, he was drifting once again. Not homeless, he would tell people. Home free.”

Jana G. Pruden – The Globe and Mail – June 2020

 

 

 

My Black ancestors fled America for freedom. I left Canada to find a home. Now both countries must fight for a better world

“When I moved to the U.S. a decade ago, I thought those ghosts would welcome me home. I felt like I was returning to the land of my ancestors, the country they built, where they prayed, and sweated, and toiled, and were tortured, and resisted, and fought, and wept as their children were stolen and sold, and were traumatized as they were raped for profit and murdered for sport; the country where they died, the places they still haunt. They escaped, and I returned to lay claim to the opportunities they were denied and the humanity they were refused.”

Debra Thompson – The Globe and Mail – June 2020

In the GTA’s tow-truck turf wars, the race for profit leads to road rage, violence and intimidation

 
Molly Hayes – The Globe and Mail – February 2020

The power of Paul Bissonnette

She was a running prodigy. He was the most powerful man in track. How her promising career unravelled

 
Michael Doyle – The Globe and Mail – February 2020

How Devon Freeman died

“The circumstances of Devon’s death and its aftermath have left his family and his First Nation, Chippewas of Georgina Island, searching for answers. Why didn’t the group home disclose an earlier suicide attempt? Why was he not taken to the hospital after he first tried to take his life? Why did the police not find his body much sooner? These questions and more could be explored through a proper coroner’s inquest – something his family, his First Nation and the Hamilton Police are coming together to demand.”

Kristy Kirkup – The Globe and Mail – January 2020